Can an image—say, a sunset, with its majestic colors and ethereal landscape—combined with ancient, Hebrew words, inspire prayer and lift the heart? This is the concept behind Nehalel beChol, a newly released siddur that uses the power of visual connections to deepen the prayer experience.
A companion to the Nehalel beShabbat siddur, published in 2013, Nehalel beChol, is a near 700-page weekday siddur that uses four-color photography, spot-color type, and a new translation of the classic Hebrew text.
As was the case with the Shabbat prayer book, the photography is unabashedly Zionist and boldly Jewish in ethos, reflecting values of learning, charity, family, awe of God, and the wonder of creation. It is also beautifully done—with sweeping landscapes, thunderstorms, sunsets, animals in motion and images from deep space—and profoundly disturbing.
A majority of the new siddur’s prayers and pasages are accompanied by photographs. A sunlit view of earth’s atmosphere illustrates the Aleinu, the idea that God “stretches out the sky and establishes the world”; Psalm 27 is accompanied by a bald teen with cancer, effectively communicating a plea not to be abandoned by God; the concept of deliverance found in “V’yatziv,” the prayer immediately following the Shema, is depicted with both death camp liberation scenes and photos from the Israeli airlift of Ethiopian Jews, Operation Solomon; the notion of God lifting up those who are bowed down in Psalm 146 is illustrated with a photo of Israel paraplegic tennis champion Genedi Kahanov.
There are important moments when prayers are not accompanied by photography, like the opening of the Shema and the first pages of the Amidah.
Michael Haruni, a Jerusalem-based editor and translator who developed both siddurim, said that, ideally, a photo’s content will create awareness within the reader, and merge with the act of prayer. “The photo should become part of a whole thought directed at God.”
At first use, the images pushed and pulled, simultaneously moving me in and out of prayer. With use, however, a shift occurred: The images took on the effect of musical background, a sentient reminder of the rich content of the prayer book, which deepened my attention to text.
According to Haruni, this is the first set of siddurim that engages photography of this magnitude into the act of prayer, an effect that is furthered by using spot color type in the text to connect photos with words in a prayer: The lines of text on the page that appear in color is are meant to signal a connection to the photos.
“Praying with this Siddur demands a lively mental and spiritual effort,” Haruni said. Keeping the photography in perspective is the challenge and the reward of using the Nehalel Siddurim. Haruni’s guide to using photography in prayer, available as a download on the siddur website, offers important guidance. (For example, “We should not rely on the photos, but press our imagination beyond them.”)
Haruni has also created a refreshing translation of the classic Hebrew text, adding a modern voice to the siddur, yet it does still yield to classic language and metaphors. (Both siddurim employ the male personal pronouns of “Him” and “His” for God.)
For example, “El melech ne’eman,” often translated as “God faithful King,” has been flipped and retranslated as “Sovereign, loyal God.” Suddenly the meditation is more personal. “Y’hi ratzson milpanecha,” often translated as “May it be Your will” is translated as “It should be your manifest intention.” We ask God to make these things manifest in our lives and in our times. “Hallelujah,” typically left untranslated in Siddurim, appears as “celebrate Adonai.” Hallelujah, then, is a religious imperative and an exclamation of joy.
A beautifully crafted hard-bound book, it’s heavy for use in prayer. It’s also a chore to move between dark and light pages. While photographic inclusion of women is generally even-handed, there are no photos of men and women together in prayer or study. The editors avoid the issue of women wearing tallit or tefillin by illustrating the third paragraph of the Shema with tallitot, but other photos of tefillin-in-use are exclusively male.
In both content and interpretation of the prayers, this is an Orthodox siddur that should also appeal to Conservative Jews and any traditionalists for prayer. It would also serve as an excellent companion in deepening an understanding of the traditional liturgy, no matter the individual’s denomination.
In sum, the Nehalel beChol siddur, and its Shabbat companion, are a major contribution to the bookshelf of Jewish prayer books. They would have been a profoundly different if crafted by an American liberal Jew. Using them in prayer will be challenging for those who struggle with Zionism or prefer a more egalitarian volume. Still, everyone who loves Jewish prayer should study them, learn from them and be inspired by them.